The secret Saudi plan to buy the World Cup – POLITICO

Saudi Arabia has offered to pay for new sports stadiums in Greece and Egypt if it agrees to team up with the oil-rich Gulf heavyweight in a joint bid to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup, POLITICO can reveal .

In exchange, the Saudis could host three-quarters of all matches, under the proposed deal.

The dramatic offer – likely worth billions of euros in construction costs – was discussed in a private conversation between Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, and the Greek prime minister. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in the summer of 2022, according to a senior official familiar with the matter.

A second senior official with knowledge of the private talks over the bid told POLITICO that Saudi Arabia was ready to “fully bear the costs” of hosting Greece and Egypt, but 75% of the huge 48-team tournament itself would be held in the Gulf. State.

It is unclear whether the offer was accepted. But the three countries are currently working on a joint proposal to host the 2030 tournament, a move that has sparked a backlash against Greece.

Riyadh’s offer of megabucks to Greece, reported here for the first time, will fuel criticism that Saudi Arabia is effectively trying to use its astronomical wealth to buy the World Cup by creating a cross-continental coalition to cleverly profit from the electoral system.

In a bid to persuade members of football’s world governing body, FIFA, of the virtues of the Saudi-led bid, the proposed tournament would see matches staged across three continents, ensuring geographical balance. A Middle East-only World Cup bid is unlikely to succeed eight years after Qatar hosted the tournament in 2022.

The Saudis’ main rivals are a joint European bid from Spain, Portugal and Ukraine, and a South American bid from Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile.

The decision of who will host the 2030 World Cup comes down to a public vote of the entire FIFA Congress, made up of more than 200 member associations from around the world. If African countries, attracted by Egypt’s presence and Saudi investments in Africa, rally to the bid and Asian countries do the same, while Greece siphons off some European votes, the Saudi-led proposal Saudi will have a strong chance of winning.

POLITICO approached the three governments for comment. The Greek and Saudi governments declined to comment, and the Egyptian government did not respond to POLITICO’s inquiries. FIFA also declined to comment.

‘New world order’

Hosting the World Cup would be the culmination of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious strategy to dominate major sporting events. Successes include securing the rights to host world championship boxing fights, European football and Formula 1 motor racing, while creating his own rebel golf tour. The Saudi Public Investment Fund has also bought a major English football club and the country will host the Asian Cup in football for the first time in 2027.

But Saudi Arabia’s desire to host the World Cup goes beyond reasons of sporting prestige, according to a regional expert.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi lifts the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 winners trophy after the team’s victory at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 | Julian Finney/Getty Images

“Saudi Arabia is strategically trying to position itself as an Afro-Eurasian hub – the center of a new world order,” Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economics at Skema Business School in Paris, told AFP. about the Saudi offer. “This positioning would allow Saudi Arabia to wield significant power and influence over a wide geographic area, which it seeks to achieve by building relationships with key partners.”

“The multipolar organization of a World Cup with Egypt and Greece would be neither altruism nor largesse. Rather, it would be part of a larger plan, which the Riyadh government is making possible through the potential donation of stadiums,” he added.

Saudi Arabia’s decision to host the tournament has drawn disgust from human rights watchers, who point to the country’s brutal treatment of the LGBTQ+ community and migrant workers.

“Saudi repression should not be rewarded with a World Cup,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “As long as Saudi Arabia discriminates against LGBT people and punishes women for their human rights activism, and does not provide protection for migrant workers who would build the majority of new stadiums and facilities, the country cannot respond. human rights requirements that FIFA already has in place.

The Qatar 2022 World Cup has been marred by criticism from the Gulf state over its treatment of migrant workers.

Bad memories

In Greece, payment for sports infrastructure is a touchy subject, where it is seen as a monument to government debauchery.

In 2004, Athens hosted the Olympics, with Greece spending around €9 billion. However, much of the infrastructure was left abandoned after the Olympic flame was extinguished.

As the country entered a decade-long depression and had to resort to bailout programs to avoid bankruptcy, the Olympics became a source of anger for Greeks who wondered if the Games had pushed their country further into recession. Nearly two decades after the Olympics extravaganza, many of the 30 venues remain unused, while some have been demolished.

Since coming to power in 2019, Greece’s conservative New Democracy government has sought to deepen ties with the Saudis and other Gulf countries, in response to arch-rival Turkey’s expansionist policies in the region. .

Mitsotakis has visited Riyadh several times, Greece has delivered military equipment and soldiers to Saudi Arabia, and in July last year Athens became the first EU capital visited by bin Salman since personally approving, according to declassified US intelligence, the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Bin Salman, who has returned to the good graces of the West thanks to an energy crisis triggered by Russia’s war against Ukraine, signed several bilateral agreements in Athens last summer, while pledging to do of Greece an energy hub for the distribution of “green hydrogen”. ”

Saudi Arabia traditionally maintains close diplomatic relations with Egypt. Bin Salman met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo last June, where he signed billions of euros in investment deals and discussed “bilateral and regional cooperation”.

The decision on hosting the 2030 World Cup will be made in 2024, with the bidding process due to officially open later this year.

Nektaria Stamouli and Nicolas Camut contributed reporting.


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